Art Of The State
Instrumental music doesn't sell, the UK dance scene is totally bereft of life, and dance bands never produce decent albums. Wrong, wrong, wrong — and 808 State are back with proof. Nigel Humberstone talked to Manchester's finest during the recording of Gorgeous, their third album.
My first impressions of 808 State were formed by their debut appearance on Top Of The Pops, performing 'Pacific'. I remember them then as a group of Manchester lads standing behind and abusing their synthesizers and samplers. But in retrospect they have certainly stayed the course, gaining worldwide success and respect despite the transformation of the then burgeoning UK dance scene into what has, in many respects, become a shallow and disposable art form. The 808 team are now down to a nucleus of three; Graham Massey, Darren Partington and Andy Barker, following the amicable departure of Martin Price. Still signed to ZTT he now has his own group called Switzerland and is collaborating with various personnel and producers.
In discussing the way that dance music has changed during the past year or so, all three agree on a fairly damning analysis. Graham: "I think it's more the way that the public view it now. They've reached this point where they've got used to seeing two guys with keyboards and a girl in lycra kind of thing on Top Of The Pops. I'm worried that a lot of people will shy away from it because of that. But it's always been split into two factions — there's 'interesting' dance music and 'totally pop'.
"When we started off everyone was saying 'Oh, House Music's gonna last 10 minutes, it's a fad'. I think it's great that it has lasted and remained popular, but there is..." "A lot of shit about," interjects Darren. "But there always has been," counters Massey, "only now it's got a lot more access — everyone's having a go."
Darren: "And that's stopping progressive dance music. It's like, give it four samples and a break beat and call it 'a track'. Since 87/88 the dance scene audience has got younger. The so called 'raver' would have been over 20, easily. Now it'd be hard to find anyone over 18 at a major rave. We feel we've been part of the dance scene from the start, but now it's hard to say you belong to anything, it's all so pop, so tame — it's lost its edge. We still go to big raves, and you stand there and think 'I do not belong here, I feel like an old fogey' — and I'm only 22." "Well imagine how I feel then!" adds Graham.
Each of the three members' individual involvement in and enthusiasm for dance music has been a vital influence on the group. Graham Massey has a background in sound engineering following his course at Spirit, whilst Darren and Andy have for the last two years continued to DJ their own weekly show on Manchester's community Sunset Radio. Darren: "The good thing is we get records from Eastern Bloc every Tuesday morning — maybe spending £150 — and we'll put those new records straight out. The kids tape it and if they like any they'll go and buy them — they're being educated. It also stops the alienation of going into a specialist record shop where there's two DJs at one end and the assistants are serving them. A little kid has got £15 in his pocket and wants to buy some groovy tunes and they're treating him like a piece of shit. At least he can listen to our show and know what he likes. This area's been educated — Manchester is well up on its scene."
Despite their high profile as leading lights in hi-tech music, 808 State have only recently crossed over into the field of computer composing and dedicated sampling. The preparation and execution of their latest album has seen a lot of time spent changing their working procedure, which has involved setting up compatible home demo set-ups. Now each member fleshes out ideas using an Atari running Cubase (Version 2) and an Akai S1000. "We'd been using Hybrid Arts' SMPTE Track for donkey's years," says Graham, "and now using Cubase means that you're instantly five steps ahead arrangement-wise. There's a lot more room for improvisation — you can chuck lots more in the computer and still see what you're doing — even things like getting an old piece of sheet music, nicking a chord sequence, slapping it in your computer and moving it about. Because the chords are related it should work in other ways, so it's bound to have elements of what made the original piece of music right, but is completely different. We do quite a lot using that method."
The standard writing procedure is to demo the rough ideas either at home or in their 24-channel Allen & Heath GS3/Fostex E16 equipped facility. From there they will invariably go and track the song at Vibes Studio in Oldham. "Vibes is a fairly cheap studio," explains Graham, "with an Amek Mozart and SuperTrue Automation. It's a system that we're used to now, and we've written that way for ages. Most groups — our contemporaries — write directly off the computer with a sampler. But we've always used tape and have only just started getting into writing on a computer. It's something we should have done a long time ago. It's important that we're all compatible so now we just take disks into the studio.
"Before that it was very prehistoric," continues Darren, "it was like bringing in records, setting up decks, and sampling in the studio. We used to use the Casio FZ1 a lot for years 'cos it was so easy to use, and Andy still uses one in his home set up. Then when we could afford Akai S1000s we crossed over. Even then there was a certain amount of 'techno fear' because they looked more complicated." Another of the band's favourite studios is FON in Sheffield, a relatively new facility that again features an Amek Mozart. Graham: "The people who run FON, the engineers and the tape ops, are all good people, and the place has a nice easy going atmosphere. When you use a place a lot, you begin to trust it."
"It's also got the best set of big monitors that I've heard in a long time [JBL bass drivers with ATC mid-range tweeters]" adds Darren, "and natural daylight! Another good thing about FON is that they've got their own acetate cutting room — so everything we do there, we slap on acetate and take it out. It's good for judging an audience's reaction." "That's why this album has taken a long time" admits Graham, "'cause we've done an awful lot of 'road testing' with acetates."
808 State have always been a largely instrumental dance band, working with vocalists only when the feeling was right. Their latest album continues that trend. Graham: "All along we've been jeered into getting in the guest appearances — but we've left it to the last minute really. Caroline Crawley, who sang on This Mortal Coil's Blood LP contributes to 'Europa', and we've also used a singer who's worked with Eight Records in Liverpool. We've always worked against people's assumptions that we need a singer. That's why I don't like these bands that go and get a 'leotard' to sing over vocal samples. That really gets the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. But they have to have them or people won't understand it.
"We've also done this track with UB40. They gave us the master tape to 'One in Ten', and the track we've done is an idea based on a mix that Darren used to do on one of his car tapes, which fitted really well with this techno track." Andy: "A week after this article appears they'll probably be a dozen 'One in Ten' tracks out — hopefully ours'll be out by then or we're f***ed."
Another collaboration involves one of Australia's pre-Kylie musical exports. "We once mentioned that we were going to work with Rolf Harris, and a couple of weeks later we had the Stylophone craze. What we actually did for this album was to re-record and update 'Sunarise', 'cause it's such a great piece and the original 2-track was in a bad condition. Rolf told us that there wasn't originally a didgeridoo on the track, it was actually eight double bass players playing the part. But we had him in the studio, a-puffing and a-blowing. It was dead weird to see him at work; he's such a craftsman. We've got some samples of his didgeridoo and aboriginal sticks.
"We didn't want to rave it up because then we would have been disrespectful to the tune. Instead we made it into something like The Orb — sub-bassed it and put a lot of airiness around it. We did an alternative version which took just four hours."
"It's great working with other people's bits of music," reflects Graham, "because you learn quite a lot about structure and actual song writing. Especially with someone like Johnny Marr who is a great song writer."
Darren: "Electronic's original version of 'Disappointed', for which we did a 12-inch re-mix, was just so brilliantly crafted — it was perfect." "It was the same with David Bowie's 'Sound and Vision'," continues Graham. "There was something so complete about it after we finished it. We had to work out all the chord changes, which is not the way we normally approach things. I've loved Low for years, and to actually get your fingers onto the multi-track, do it and come out the other end leaving your mark on it, is great. Mary Hopkins sings on backing vocals, so we played her line in as just a sample. It sounds like a Beach Boys part. It was definitely one of the more satisfying things we've done." The re-mix of 'Sound and Vision' has been released in America through Tommy Boy Records, but due to licensing restrictions is only available as an import in this country.
Graham Massey's house is a testament to his label of 'junk shop freak', accredited to him by Darren and Andy. Through rummaging around second hand stores in this country and the States, Graham has amassed a varied and impressive collection of 'paraphernalia', as Darren calls it, ranging from antique clarinets and Hawaiian guitars, to a discarded EDP Wasp monosynth and countless vintage synthesizers. The equipment is littered around the perimeter of his front room, through the hall and put back even into his kitchen. "I know everyone's got on the analogue tip," admits Graham, "but we've never really been off it and have gone the whole hog.
"Moog and ARP stuff features quite heavily on this album, as it did on the last one. I think we ran into problems at one point 'cause the whole album was sounding like an analogue 'mush' and we needed to balance it out. It even got to the point where we were thinking about getting a DX7! We've had the Roland JD800 for quite a time now, and we thought that it was going to cure all our problems, but like any modern synth it has its limitations. After we got into it we bought a set of dance drum cards and we use those quite a lot. It's just the way that you can manipulate the sounds, stack them and filter them that allows you to come up with some really original drum sounds. That features a lot on this album."
Darren: "I've just bought a JV30, the new Roland synth, and that's very Pet Shop Boys, very polite stuff, and that usually contrasts with the rest of what we've got. If we didn't use any of the new cleaner stuff like the Roland and Yamaha patches then we'd get into a rut — especially on an album. Another synth we've always wanted but never purchased is a D50, but you can never find a cheap D50. We've always used one because it happens to be in a studio but it would be nice to get your hands inside one of those, even though you can spot their sounds a mile off."
The lack of awareness of the limitations of certain sound sources is cited by Graham as one problem with the current dance music scene. "One of the things that you notice about modern dance music is that it's been made in people's bedrooms, and so has all come out of an Akai — and it sounds that way. It's very much like listening to concrete — linear chunks."
Graham: "One of our favourite sounds, that we've used a lot and that keeps cropping up, is from an old ARP Quartet that we picked up for £30. It's a really 'cheesy' string synth of which we're great fans — we've also got a Moog Opus III. The trouble with old stuff is that it's always going down, but we're lucky in that we've got this friend Tony Wride, who we call Captain Techno, who helps out. He's an airline pilot [and ex-SOS writer] and he flies to America a lot — he's also an analogue freak and he brings over synths, repairs them, and then sells them. In fact we've got another ARP 2600 coming over with him — that's a synth that we've used a lot on this album." "It also looks absolutely beautiful," adds Darren. "Like at Amazon Studio [see photograph] we gave that pride of place in the middle of all our gear, so if anyone walks in they can't miss it."
The band's extensive use of pre-MIDI analogue instruments means that 808 State have more need than most for MIDI-to-CV conversion. "Most of our stuff is MIDI'd up by Kenton," says Massey, "including the Memory Moog which is also heavily featured on the album. The track 'Reaper Repo' is nearly all Memory Moog — because of its polyphony you can get some really nice chord stuff with a good analogue feel. Something like a Juno, which we still use an awful lot, hasn't got that edge that the Moog has.
"There's also the Oberheim 4-voice which is a wicked sounding synth. Each voice has two oscillators, and it sounds like it looks really — you can blow holes in walls with it! The main riff on 'Timebomb' features one of those. People get a bit 'Spinal Tap' about their instruments, because these are instruments — I don't know why people stopped thinking of synthesizers as instruments. People tend to regard them as boxes of electronics, but each one has a character. It's about having an identity to your music, and now a lot of people have realised that records sounded better with those types of instruments."
The last year has seen 808 State taking their sounds across the world with tours in America and Japan; the latter is a particularly big market for the band. Whereas Japanese audiences used to bring drum machines along to their gigs, and wave them down at the front, a different trend has now emerged. "A lot of people were giving us disks this time," recounts Graham, "chucking Akai disks on stage! The first time we went over there, nobody was making an effort to do the music, which was surprising 'cause that's where all the technology comes from. But this last time they're coming through and they've just got to develop an identity of their own. The DJs are really good, and some of the club PA systems are awesome."
Gigs at large venues like Heaton Park and G-Mex have also confirmed their status as major league performers. "It was like we were becoming 'techno stadium rockers'," says Graham, "but the bigger the event the less focus there is on you. The lighting rigs are centered on the audience and the people aren't always looking at the stage. One of the first things I liked about this scene was that it was all about participation and not about going and gawking at someone, and I think we carry that into our shows.
I'm glad we're doing places like Glastonbury 'cause we'll get to a lot of people who may have preconceptions about what we are." Sound for their live shows is the responsibility of 'Sir Pablo', regarded by the band as a genius live engineer, and master of the BBE bass boost unit. Another device that the band have recently been 'roadtesting' for both live and recording purposes is the BASE unit, which acts much like a 3D sound processor.
808 State are unusual in being a dance band whose albums sell in quantity. "People always assume that dance bands are selling LPs, but they're not really," says Graham. "We've been lucky because people have taken our albums seriously. In fact, in Review of the Year on Radio 4, this classical geezer listed Ex:el amongst his favourite records. So it's reached a broad cross-section of people, and I'm dead chuffed with that. "So when we were approaching the new album it was almost like having to follow up the last one; viewing all the positive points about that and having some sort of development. People are always expecting more from us — they're looking for next angle." "It's got to be a lot of things," continues Darren. "It's got to be a car album, a hi-fi album. You know, it's got to be a 'come home from a club at 2am, shut off your head and put on 808 State' kind of album. Because it goes up and down and moves around."
Perhaps one of the new album's most outstanding features is the diversity and variation between the tracks. As creators of dance music the band obviously have formulae and distinct working methods, but this identity does not taint the music with blatant repetition or any sense of predictability. The breakdowns and sections that intercut the tunes at tangents could very well be the basis for separate songs. 808 State produce dance music with breathing spaces.
"We've decided that we've got to address clubs a bit more," asserts Graham, "because as we approached this album we were beginning to veer away and now we're 'steering the ship', as you might say, back into the clubs. So it's got harder, but I don't think there's any point trying to be 'the hardest'. When we were in Japan they'd got these sections in the record shops called 'Death Techno' and all the clubs were like 'the hardest', and all it ends up is like car alarm music. There'll always be that extreme but we're not interested in chasing it anymore. It's hard to make dance music with a bit of longevity in it, but I guess that's what I'm trying to do."
"I hate all those people who follow everybody else," continues Graham, warming to his theme. "That's why you get the situation where everyone's records sound the same. I think that people who stick their heads out once in a while keep the scene alive — you've got to do it. The scene is still an interactive thing 'cause all those annoying records make you go out and make other records. We've all got different views and we go to different clubs, so we bring those elements back into the music."
The new album includes a fair dosage of real instruments such as acoustic guitar, bass clarinet and timbales. Graham: "There's a lot more 'real' playing coming back into records now. Working with computer music all the time has now made me appreciate other music a great deal more. It's no good having the technology unless you've got something to express through it — you can't pluck it out of thin air, you've got to build it."
Darren agrees: "Four years on, and now I appreciate 'playing' more. When I listen to a rave tune and it's got a bit of flute on it — that's human and it appeals to me. Like the Hawaiian guitar that Graham's bought — just buying it guarantees that you're going to do a track with it. With the Banshees re-mix [the Theme to Batman Returns] we were having a problem with the feel of it, and Graham just played the bass line in straight off a bass and automatically it changed the track. As soon as that went in we were able to tackle it in a different way."
As Graham remarked in a previous interview, one of the most valuable currencies in the studio is ideas, and this is a crucial element of what makes an 808 track stand out amongst the crowd. "We used to use the Casio MIDI guitar a lot for chucking things into the computer. It stops you repeating yourself 'cause every time you go to the keyboard you end up with similar shapes. We've also picked up a Casio MIDI horn in the States for $25 — stick that in a JD800 and you're away."
The art of re-mixing is central to 808 State's music, and rather uniquely they have never employed outside producers or mixers. Different record formats all entail specialised re-mixes which are more than alternative versions. "One of our strong points," offers Graham, "is that we are very melodic compared to a lot of other groups, and being that melodic doesn't always suit dance floor music — so a lot of the time we're having to re-do dance floor mixes." The group are also in constant demand to re-mix other people's work. Together they have recently undertaken work for The Banshees, David Bowie, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Electronic, whilst Graham Massey has also been involved in re-mixing the chart-topping 'Papua New Guinea' by The Future Sound of London, along with two Sugarcubes tracks destined for a limited edition release.
"You do a remix 'cause you like the group or you've got something for the tune," says Darren, "and we'd never do a re-mix just for the sake of it. That's probably why no one's ever re-mixed us in England — we've never rated anyone enough to let them do it. I wouldn't say no to a Depeche Mode re-mix, for example. It's nice to see what people like that are going to come up with musically. There's not that many artists that you can say that about nowadays. You know I'm really waiting to hear their new album — and that's what I hope people are saying about us; that we're going to deliver something different."
Gorgeous is released by ZTT on October 12th, followed by an 8-date UK tour storting October 14th.
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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